NASCAR: Early season story-lines

After six races of the 2018 season, roughly one quarter of the regular season, we’ve seen four drivers punch their ticket into the playoffs. We’ve also seen some drivers, as well as entire teams, look very strong to start the season. We’ve also seen some drivers and teams very slow out of the gate. As we near the end of NASCAR’s bye week, lets take a look at some of the most interesting storylines thus far.

Stewart Haas’ Strong start

Heading into Texas Motor Speedway, Stewart Haas Racing (SHR) has won four of the first six races and has all four drivers in the top-11 in the point standings.

One of most astounding facts to look at is that SHR won a total of only three races all of last season, two from Kevin Harvick and one from Kurt Busch. This season, Harvick has already rattled off three straight wins at Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix. He’s also led a series-high 433 laps so far.

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SHR drivers Kurt Busch, Harvick, Bowyer, and Almirola (left to right). Photo from NASCAR.com

Clint Bowyer tacked on the fourth SHR win of the season with his huge victory at Martinsville. Bowyer’s win snapped a personal 190-race winless streak that spanned back to 2012. He led more laps at the Paperclip (215) than he had in his previous 159 races.

Furthermore, Aric Almirola has made a splash in his first season with SHR. He spent the last five seasons racing for Richard Petty Motorsports (RPM) in the legendary 43 car. During that time, he accumulated 10 top-5s, 30 top-10s, and one career win back in 2014.

Since sliding into the number 10 car at SHR, he has two top-10s in the first six races and an average finish of 11.17. He led the Daytona 500 on the final lap but was wrecked by Austin Dillon, resulting in an 11th place finish. Almirola was likely to win had he not been wrecked. He’s still 11th in the standings and has looked competitive each week.

Although his teammates have been stellar on the track, we can’t forget about the last teammate, Kurt Busch. Busch has two stage wins already this season and is 10th in the standings with two top-10 finishes. He hasn’t won since the Daytona 500 in 2017 but has been in the mix early this season.

 

Kyle Busch’s String of Top-3s

Kyle Busch sits atop the point standings coming out of the Easter bye week with 257 points. Over the last four races, he’s finished second, second, third and second. He’s been incredibly fast but seems to be the second best car lately; only Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer have bested him at the end of races.

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Photo from momentogp.com

It seems that in each race he’s been far quicker than the entire field behind him, except for the car in first place. He’s been on his own island in terms of speed compared to the rest of the field over the last four weeks, except the race winners, who have just been on a planet of their own.

Kyle Busch hates not winning more than anyone else, but he’s due for a win very soon. His numbers six races into the season are remarkable. He has five top-10s, four top-5s, and has led 233 laps this season. 233 laps led accounts for 12.87 percent of all laps run this season, good for third-most behind only Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick. Plus, he has an average starting position of 6.2 with one pole start and an average finishing position of 6.8.

Blaney hot out the gate

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Photo from autoweek.com

Ryan Blaney has been on fire to start 2018. In his first season with Team Penske, he’s led the second-most laps in the series with 264. To go along with that, he’s gained two top-5s and four top-10s. He sits third in the standings behind 2015 Champ, Kyle Busch, and the defending 2017 Champ, Martin Truex Jr.

He’s also already earned two stage wins, good for two playoff points down the stretch. Plus, he’s earned an average finish of 8.5 through the first six races, good for fifth-best in the series.

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Photo from ryanblaney.com

Although he hasn’t returned to victory lane since his first career victory at Pocono back in June of 2017, he’s been knocking on the door a lot this season. In the season-opener at Daytona, he led a race-high 118 laps and finished seventh place after getting involved in a late crash. He then led 145 laps at Martinsville en route to a third-place finish.

He leads the Penske charge so far this season, but his teammates aren’t far behind him. The trio of Blaney, Brad Keselowski, and Joey Logano ride third through fifth in the standings, separated by only seven points.

Hendrick’s Stars Sluggish Start

Hendrick Motorsports finds themselves in an unfamiliar position after the first six races of the season. All four of the team’s drivers sit outside the top-10 in the point standings. We can attribute part of their struggles to the new model of Chevrolet they run, the ZL1. Driving a new model car comes with a learning curve for sure, as the Toyota’s experienced last season.

Hendrick’s star drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott, sit outside the playoff picture after the first six races of the season. Both drivers, while vastly different ages are perennial playoff drivers with serious talent behind the wheel. After six races they haven’t had winning speed, but they’re hoping to hit their stride soon.

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Photo from motorsport.com/LAT Images

Jimmie Johnson finds himself 17th in the standings with only one top-10 finish so far, a ninth at Auto Club. He’s led zero laps through the first six races and has only earned 12 stage points out of a possible 240. To put that into perspective, Brad Keselowski leads all drivers with 73 stage points earned, with Kyle Busch close behind with 70.

Teammate Chase Elliott is only six points behind Johnson in the standings in the 18th position. He’s only led four laps but has had a few good runs. He’s earned one top-5 and three top-10s, but also two DNFs. Elliott has been very hit or miss so far this season, and when he’s missed, he’s really missed. He’s only earned one more stage point than Johnson so far this season, a total of 13.

Young Hendrick Talent

Hendrick Motorsports needed to replace two of their veteran drivers heading into 2018. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, Kasey Kahne was released, and the two were replaced with 24-year-old Alex Bowman and 20-year-old William Byron.

One of the two Hendrick newcomers, Alex Bowman, is the highest of the Hendrick stable in the standings. He sits 14th, 24 points ahead of Johnson. Although he’s not a rookie, this season has been his first real chance to race in top-level equipment. At Daytona, he qualified on the pole and ran a great race until he was caught up in a late wreck. He has one top-10 so far that he earned at Martinsville with his seventh-place finish. Bowman has improved each week and continues to look more comfortable with each race under his belt.

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Photo from motorsport.com/LAT Images

The rookie newcomer, William Byron, is the lowest Hendrick driver in the standings. He sits 20th, but only eight points behind teammate Johnson, but 149 back from points-leader Kyle Busch. Byron has run better recently and is looking to earn his first top-10 finish. He earned his first and only stage finish of 10th, good for one point, at Auto Club two races ago.

Many expected Byron to have a rookie season similar to Chase Elliott’s. Elliott earned 10 top-5s, 17 top-10s, and two poles. Those are stellar numbers for anyone to put up, let alone a rookie. While he’s unlikely to obtain those numbers, expect him to earn a handful of top-10s and maybe a few top-5s down the stretch. So far this season, Byron has led a total of 16 laps this season, while his three teammates have only led a combined 17.

 

 

 

Featured image courtesy of motorsport.com and LAT images

 

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